Local restaurants reopen under challenging circumstances

Local restaurants reopen under challenging circumstances

  • Updated

Jeffery Sawyer left work around 2 a.m. Friday morning and was back there a few hours later. He needed all the time he could get as he and his staff made a mad dash to prepare for a return to normalcy. 

Sawyer and countless other business owners throughout Benton and Linn counties reopened their doors to the public Friday in response to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s latest executive order. The order, which contained the first portion of Oregon’s phased reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, allows restaurants, bars, fitness facilities, salons and other businesses to open under specific guidelines. 

“We thought we would have to wait another week to re-open — I didn’t realize it would be this sudden. We kind of pulled an all-nighter,” Sawyer, who owns Bombs Away Cafe in Corvallis, said.

Businesses are not required to reopen, and many local eateries are taking a wait-and-see approach before they open their doors. But others are eager to return after weeks of only serving takeout and delivery orders. 

“We’ve been a glorified food truck,” Sawyer said, laughing. “We’re a halfway decent food truck with the rent of a prime-located bar right off campus.”

To abide by the guidelines listed in the order, restaurants are taking extra measures, such as rearranging and spacing out seating, sanitizing seats and tables whenever a customer stands up and providing hand sanitizer.

“It’s been a challenge, for sure, figuring out how we’re going to lay it out and keep that six-foot bubble,” Wade Willliams, manager at McMenamins on Monroe, said. “We’ve struggled with the flow of walking through here; which staircases can we use? Which ones can we not? It’s been really tricky.”

The reopening guidelines create a logistical nightmare for some locations, and plenty of restaurant and bar owners have elected to stay closed for the time being until they see how others fare under the circumstances. 

“We don’t want to be the tip of the spear, the first guy out of the trench,” Matt Bennett, owner of Sybaris Bistro in Albany said. “Let’s see what happens. I’m happy that the governor has decided this, that’s good. Let’s see what happens and hope that everybody is safe. It’s going to take a little bit to get staff comfortable and find the best way to approach this.”

Bennett said Sybaris has been doing alright while operating on just a takeout basis, and the restaurant will continue operating that way for the time being. He said he has been keeping tabs on restaurants throughout the country for creative ideas to help business during the pandemic. 

“I’ve been talking with a lot of other restaurant people and a lot of them have concerns,” Bennett said. “Some wanted to be open a long time ago, but they can’t under these restrictions.”

Many business owners in downtown Albany are taking a similarly patient approach. Gabriel Anderson, owner of Margin Coffee, noted that his shop is largely dependent on foot traffic, which has decreased significantly in the area during the pandemic. They have opened their outdoor seating, but have not brought back indoor seating yet.

“So many businesses downtown feed off of eachother,” Anderson said. “Everyone is trying to play off of each other and see how we can move forward as a community, rather than just individuals. We just want to be safe.”

Cloud Davidson, owner of Downward Dog in Covallis, opened his pub at 11 a.m. Friday and didn’t have to wait long for a cluster of excited students to show up. After two months of staying indoors and watching their spring term go by the wayside, plenty of Oregon State University students were glad for the chance to socialize and gather outdoors — albeit, in small groups, with dividers between tables

Kyle Isaacson, Leo Stein and Chris Kirchner, all seniors at OSU, hadn’t been able to go out and drink together since March. So when they learned they would be able to do so Friday, they planned to get to Downward Dog as early as possible and begin celebrating. 

“We came by and checked it out at, like, 8:30 because we thought there was going to be a line,” Stein said. “We wanted to just get out and be outside.”

They showed back up just before 11, found they were the first ones in line, and gladly ordered drinks. But as they and many others learned Friday, dining experiences for customers will be drastically different than they were pre-pandemic.

“The weirdest part is being out here, but not being able to talk to the people at the next table,” Isaacson said. 

“This is normally such a social bar, but you just kind of have to stay at your table,” Kirchner added.

The opportunity to reopen has created a conflicting blend of optimism and anxiousness for many business owners. While they are eager to see their customers and get back to doing what they love, they also are wary that operating at such limited capacity will create financial difficulties. 

“It’s equal parts scary and exciting, I guess,” Davidson said. “There’s fear of the unknown — I don’t know what it’s really going to be like. It’s certainly not going to be like it was. There’s a lot of personal responsibility that a business owner bears by opening their stores to the public. Then there’s making sure the employees are safe... It’s hard enough to make money at 100 percent occupancy; I don’t know what to think about this 50 percent thing. Health-wise, it’s easy to understand. Budget-wise, it’s pretty crazy.” 

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